Monday, December 31, 2012

Farewell, 2012

Twenty twelve is nearly over. I think it might be too soon to totally access the year as it was. I think sometimes it takes some distance to grasp what the most important events of any year was. Still, with the end of the year we often want to summarise what happened throughout that year, and I have generally done so at the end of each year in this blog.

I think fewer celebrities died in 2012 than in 2009, 2010, or 2011, but the year saw much bigger names pass. Indeed, for me 2012 will always be the year that Davy Jones died. His death is one of only a few before (John Lennon, John Entwistle, and Doug Fieger) that impacted me as if someone I knew personally had died. I still find myself on the edge of tears. The simple fact is that I have always been a huge Monkees fan, and while Mike Nesmith is my favourite Monkee, I always loved Davy as well.

Of course, while Davy may have been the biggest name for me to have died, he was by far not the only one. As I said earlier, if fewer celebrities died this year, the names were bigger, with actors who saw success in multiple media. We might think of them primarily as the stars of legendary TV shows, but Andy Griffith, Jack Klugman, Larry Hagman, Ernest Borgnine, and Henry Morgan all saw success in motion pictures as well. Some of them even saw success on the Broadway stage. With regards to television, several other actors best known for their work in that medium also died, including Jonathan Frid, Sherman Hemsley, George Lindsey (Goober on The Andy Griffith Show), Ben Gazzara (another actor who had success in film and on stage as well, but perhaps best known for _Run For Your Life_), Richard Dawson, Frank Cady, Mary Tamm, Peter Breck, and Caroline John. The year also saw the passing of Dick Clark, a giant in American television. Not only was he the host of American Bandstand for years, but he was also a producer responsible for many shows of the year. Twenty twelve also saw the passing of Gerry Anderson, who was responsible for such shows as Thunderbirds, U.F.O., and Space: 1999. William Asher, perhaps best known as the producer of Bewitched, also died this year.

Twenty twelve also saw the deaths of several movie stars, of which my favourite was Ann Rutherford. She was one of my childhood crushes and, not only was she was a talented actress, but everyone I know who had met her has said she was one of the nicest people one could meet. Miss Rutherford was one of the last links to the Golden Age of Hollywood. One of the last links to the Golden Age of British Cinema would die this year as well. Dinah Shelton not saw success in British film, but also later on television as well. Herbert Lom was one of the last remaining links to the Golden Age on either side of the Atlantic, an actor who saw success in both the UK and the US, and in both television and film as well. Like Herbert Lom, Jean Simmons was also a link to both the Golden Ages of Hollywood and British Cinema, having starred in several classic films on both sides of the Pond. Several other movie stars died during the year, including Celeste Holm, William Windom, Michael Clarke Duncan, Victor Spinetti, and Dorothy McGuire all died as well.

Davy Jones was not the only famous musical performer to die during the year. Levon Helm founded one of the most legendary bands of all time, The Band. Jon Lord was with Deep Purple in its heyday, having previously played with The Artwoods and late Whitesnake. Robin Gibb was one of The Bee Gees, who produced a string of hits in the Sixties and Seventies (although I like to forget their years spent in disco). Dave Brubeck was a legend in modern jazz. The year also saw the passing of two legendary crooners, Tony Martin and Andy Williams.

It was also a year when legendary artists died. While Moebius was known to the general public for his work in film, he was responsible for the legendary Western comic strip Les Aventures de Blueberry. Sheldon Moldoff was a Golden Age comic book artist, known for his work on "Batman" and "Hawkman" and who created the character The Black Pirate. Joe Kubert was also known for his work on "Hawkman," although perhaps better known as the creator of Sgt. Rock.

Twenty twelve also saw the passing of several writers. Perhaps there was no bigger name than Ray Bradbury, the fantasist who wrote such classics as Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles. Gore Vidal, who worked in the Golden Age of Television and then went onto write several historical novels, also died.  Nora Ephron made her name with her essays and articles before writing screenplays for filmssuch as When Harry Met Sally and You've Got Mail. Maurice Sendak was a writer and illustrator of children's books, most notably Where The Wild Things Are. Helen Gurley Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan for years and the author of several books.

Of course, 2012 was more than just a year of deaths. In fact, I might also remember it as the "Year of Viral Songs That I Hate." In the summer "Call Me Maybe" was played to the point of nauseating those of us who didn't like the song from the start. In the autumn, as if to prove to us that there could be something worse, "Gangnam Style" became a global phenomenon. Fortunately there was still some good music out there. Released in late 2011, "Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees proved there was still an audience for power pop, hitting #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 early in the year. "We Are Young" by fun was actually released in September 2011, but it would not take off until this year. In the end it hit the #1 spot in the Billboard Hot 100. These two songs give me hope that rock might once more overtake the record charts that of late have been dominated by rather generic pop and rhythm and blues. That's not to say that there are not good R&B acts out there. I actually enjoy much of Adele's work.

As far as movies go, 2012 appears to have been dominated by characters who have been around for decades. The two top films of the year thus far were Marvels' The Avengers (one of who, Captain America, has been around since the Forties) and The Dark Knight Rises (featuring Batman, who has been around since 1939). Skyfall came in as the fourth highest grossing film of the year so far, becoming the highest grossing James Bond film of all time. The recently released The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the eighth highest grossing film. Beyond the fact that characters who have been around for fifty, sixty, and even seventy years dominating the box office, it would seem that the year was dominated by what can only be described as epics. The two top grossing superhero movies were epic in scope, as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey by its very nature. There was even an epic musical, Les Miserables. The box office was saw the start of a new franchise based on a series of young adult novels. The Hunger Games was the third highest grossing film of the year. For those of who do not believe real vampires sparkle, the Twilight franchise came to an end with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, which is very good news indeed.

I think 2012 was a fairly good year for television. Indeed, in the way of Doctor Who and Downton Abbey it seems to me that the British are making further incursions into American television. Although it did not repeat the success of Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife proved quite successful when it aired on PBS. Doctor Who has only grown in popularity in its years since its revival. What is more, The Doctor has a gorgeous new companion in the form of Jenna-Louise Coleman. Another example of what could be a British invasion of American television could be the BBC America series Copper. Although set in 1860's New York, the series was an American-British co-production. Over all I am happy with the shows that debuted on cable this year. A&E actually took a break from their horrible reality shows to air Longmire, a modern day Western mystery series. A revival of Dallas (a continuation rather than a re-envisioning) debuted on TNT. On the downside, Leverage ended its run on TNT this year after five years (it remains one of my favourite shows). Even the broadcast networks seem to be improving. While NBC's Revolution was a disappointment (poorly written and not particularly plausible), NBC gave us Chicago Fire, another show from producer Dick Wolf. CBS debuted Vegas, a show set in late Fifties/early Sixties Las Vegas that functions a combination Western and crime show. I am hoping Vegas might mean the broadcast networks might finally move beyond the bland sitcoms and lawyer shows they insist on debuting each year and into more a greater variety of types of shows.

Over all, I cannot say 2012 was a remarkable year beyond the many big names in entertainment we lost. Except for music (in which we had two bad songs hit become viral...), I don't think it can be said to be a bad year or a good year either one. Of course, as with any year good or bad, I think I can speak for us all when I say I hope 2013 is even better.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cliff Osmond and Fontella Bass Pass On

Cliff Osmond

Character actor Cliff Osmond died 22 December 2012 at the age of 75. The cause was pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Osmond appeared in many films made by Billy Wilder late in his career, including Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974).

Cliff Osmond was born Clifford Osman Ebrahim on 26 February 1937 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was raised in Union City, New Jersey and graduated from Dartmouth College. He made his television debut on an episode of The Dupont Show of the Week in 1962. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in How the West Was Won (1962). Throughout the Sixties he appeared in such movies as Irma la Douce (1963), The Raiders (1963), Wild and Wonderful (1964), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Three Guns for Texas (1968),  and The Devil's 8 (1969). He appeared on such TV shows as The Rilfeman, Dr. Kildare, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wagon Train, 77 Sunset Strip, My Living Doll, The Red Skelton Hour, Laredo, Batman, Ironside, The Flying Nun, Gunsmoke, and The Mod Squad.

In the Seventies Mr. Osmond appeared in such films as Sweet Sugar (1972), Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), The Front Page (1974), Sharks' Treasure (1975), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), and Hangar 81 (1980). He appeared on such shows as The Chicago Teddy Bears, McMillan and Wife, Here's Lucy, All in the Family, Police Story, Emergency, The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, and Vega$.

From the Eighties into the Nineties he appeared in such films as Lone Star Bar & Grill (1983), In Search of a Golden Sky (1984), and For Which He Stands (1996). He appeared on such TV shows as Hart to Hart, Trapper John M.D., Mama's Family, Matt Houston, Civil Wars, and Bodies of Evidence.

Cliff Osmond was also a screen writer. Among other things he wrote episodes of Street of San Franciscio and Serpico, as well as the films Power Play (1978) and The Penitent (1988). He also directed the films The Penitent (1988) and Bxx: Haunted (2012).  Mr. Osmond also taught acting, and in 2010 he published a book on acting and his life Acting is Living: Exploring the Ten Essential Elements in any Successful Performance.

Cliff Osmond was a gifted character actor, such that one could not really say that there was a specific character type for which he was best known. On My Living Doll he appeared as a pool shark, Fat Sam. In the movie The Front Page he appeared as a police officer, Jacobi. In The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again he appeared as wild west outlaw Wes Hardin (although it was a humorous take on the legendary outlaw). Over the years he appeared in everything from Billy Wilder comedies to cheap horror movies to Westerns. Indeed, he sometimes appeared in a major motion picture and a B-movie in the same year! Cliff Osmond was a consummate actor who was devoted to his craft, and it showed.

Fontella Bass

R & B singer Fontella Bass, best known for the hit song "Rescue Me," died on 26 December 2012 at the age of 72. The cause was complications from a recent heart attack.

Fontella Bass was born on 3 July 1940 in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of  gospel singer Martha Bass. She took to music at a young age, even providing piano accompaniment for her mother. She toured with her mother until she was sixteen, when she left gospel to perform rhythm and blues.  She was seventeen when she began performing professionally at the Showboat Club near Chain of Rocks, Missouri Eventually she would play with blues guitarist Little Milton.  Originally playing piano with Little Milton's band, she went onto provide vocals as well.

Fontella Bass signed with Bobbin Records. While she would see some success in the St. Louis area, her records with Bobbin did not perform particularly well. After two years with Little Milton she left his band and went to Chicago. It was in 1965 that she was signed to Checker, a subsidiary of the legendary Chess Records. Her first singles, Don’t Mess Up a Good Thing” and “You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone)," were duets with Bobby McClure. Both did well on Billboard's rhythm and blues chart. Her third single would be her best known song and biggest hit. "Rescue Me" reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a hit in the UK as well, where it reached #11.

Fontella Bass released four more singles on the Checker label. While they did relatively well on the R&B chart, none of them matched the success of "Rescue Me." After only two years with Chess Records she left the label in a dispute over royalties owed to her. In 1969 she and her husband Lester Bowie moved to Paris, where she recorded two albums with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. She late returned to the United States and released a solo album, Free, in 1972. Sadly, Free bombed on the charts. She then retired from singing professionally, except for the occasional vocal on her husband's albums and singing gospel music with her mother and her brother David Peaston.

Fontella Bass's career would be revitalised when there there was renewed interest in her records in the Nineties and Naughts. A greatest hits album, Rescued: The Best of Fontella Bass, was released in 1992. Over the years she would release three more albums: No Ways Tired (1995), Now That I Found a Good Thing (1996), and Travellin' (2001).

While Fontella Bass may not have a long career in rhythm and blues, she was still one of the genre's best singers. Her voice was powerful and emotive, and there can be no doubt that much of the reason for the success of "Rescue Me" was her powerful vocals. While others have covered the song, none have matched Miss Bass's vocals.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Late Great Harry Carey Jr.

Harry Carey Jr., best known for his many roles in Westerns by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other directors, died 27 December 2012 at the age of 91.

Harry Carey Jr. was born on 16 May 1921 on his family's ranch near Saugus, California. His father was silent star Harry Carey Sr. and his mother was actress Olive Carey (herself the daughter of vaudeville star George Fuller Golden). He attended and graduated from Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, California. During World War II he served in the United States Navy.

Following Word War II Harry Carey Jr. made his film debut in Rolling Home (1946). He first worked with Howard Hawks on the Western classic Red River in 1948. His first feature film with John Ford was 3 Godfathers in the same year. In the late Forties Mr. Carey appeared in such films as Moonrise (1948), Blood on the Moon (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950),  Copper Canyon (1950), and Rio Grande (1950). In the Fifties he appeared in such films as Cattle Drive (1951), Warpath (1951), The Wild Blue Yonder (1951), Monkey Business (1952), The Studebaker Story (1953), Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Island in the Sky (1953), The Outcast (1954), The Searchers (1956) , Mr. Roberts (1955), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Kiss Them for Me (1957), The River's Edge (1957) , From Hell to Texas (1958),  and Noose for a Gunman (1960).  He made his television debut on an episode of Chevron Theatre in 1952. He was a regular on the serial "The Adventures of Spin and Marty," which aired on The Mickey Mouse Club. He appeared on such shows as Racket Squad, Fireside Theatre, Big Town, The Public Defender, The Lone Ranger, Climax, The Gray Ghost, Broken Arrow, Tombstone Territory, Men into Space, Hotel De Paree, and The Tall Man.

In the Sixties Harry Carey Jr. appeared in such films as Two Rode Together (1961), The Great Impostor (1961),  A Public Affair (1962), The Raiders (1963), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966), Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), The Ballad of Josie (1967), The Way West (1967), The Devil's Brigade (1968), Bandolero! (1968), Death of a Gunfighter (1969), and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). He appeared in such TV shows as Gunsmoke, Whispering Smith, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Lawman, Checkmate, Laramie, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wagon Train, Branded, Bonanza, Run For Your Life, The Outcasts, Mannix, and The Virginian.

In the Seventies Mr. Carey appeared in such films as One More Train to Rob (1971), Big Jake (1971), Trinity Is STILL My Name! (1971), Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973), Take a Hard Ride (1975) , Nickelodeon (1976), and The Long Riders (1980). He appeared on such television shows as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, Banacek, The Streets of San Francisco, Hec Ramsey, Police Woman, and Little House on the Prairie. In the Eighties he appeared  in such movies Endangered Species (1982), Gremlins (1984), Mask (1985), Crossroads (1986), The Whales of August (1987), Cherry 2000 (1987), and Back to the Future Part III (1990).  He appeared on such shows as Dallas, Crossbow, and B. L. Stryker. In the Nineties he appeared in the films Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994), and The Sunchaser (1996).

Like many actors who appeared primarily in Westerns, I think Harry Carey Jr. was always under-appreciated as an actor. In truth he was one of the best character actors of his era. He played a wide array of roles, from a reporter General Eisenhower in The Long Grey Line to Capt. Rose in The Devil's Brigade to a bartender in Crossroads. Of course, he was best known for his Westerns, but even then he played a variety of roles. He played  a cowboy (Red River),  an outlaw (3 Godfathers), part of the U. S. Cavalry (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), a lawman (Gun the Man Down), and several other various roles. And that is only counting his movie roles. On television he frequently appeared in the role of sheriffs, although he also appeared in such varied roles as cowboys, gunmen, Cavalry officers, and even bankers and shopkeepers. Harry Carey Jr. did all of them well. In fact, I suspect that was much of why he was a favourite of both John Ford and John Wayne, as well as the fact that he was so prolific. Harry Carey Jr. was an actor who could play nearly anything in any genre and not seem out of place.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gerry Anderson: Master of Puppets

Gerry Anderson, the producer renowned for such series featuring marionettes such as Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds and such live action series as U.F.O. and Space: 1999, died on 26 December 2012 at the age of 83. Two years ago he had been diagnosed with mixed dementia.

Gerry Anderson was born Gerald Abrahams on 14 April 1929 Feltham, Middlesex. He spent his early years in Neasden in north London. At the beginning of World War II he was evacuated to Northamptonshire.  It was in 1939 that his mother changed the family's name to "Anderson." Gerry Anderson attended Willesden County Grammar School with the intention of becoming a plasterer. Unfortunately, he had to forego his chosen profession when he found out that he was allergic to plaster. He then became a trainee with Colonial Films. Following his National Service as a radio operator for the RAF, Mr. Anderson became an assistant at Gainsborough Studios.  At Gainsborough Studios he served as an assistant editor on such films as The Wicked Lady (1945), Caravan (1946), Jassy (1947), and Jassy (1947).  He worked in the sound department on the Gainsborough movie So Long at the Fair (1950).  After Gainsborough closed he worked in the sound department of films from other companies, such as Never Take No for an Answer (1951), Appointment in London (1953), South of Algiers (1953), They Who Dare (1954), and A Prize of Gold (1955).

It was towards the mid-Fifties that he joined  Polytechnic Studios, where he met cameraman Arthur Provis. After Polytechnic Studios closed, Gerry Anderson founded Pentagon Films with Reg Hill, Arthur Provis, and John Read, with the goal of producing commercials. Pentagon Films did not last long and in 1957 Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis founded AP Films. In the Fifties with AP Films, Mr. Anderson produced the TV shows The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy, the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, as well as the movie Crossroads to Crime (which was also his first live-action credit as a producer and director).  In addition to his work with AP Films, Mr. Anderson also directed an episode of The New Adventures of Martin Kane.

It was on the Western puppet series Four Feather Falls that Gerry Anderson used an early version of what would later be termed Supermarionation, the technique he would use on all of his puppet series.  Throughout the Sixties, Mr. Anderson created and produced a number of programmes using Supermarionation, including what may have been his biggest hit, Thunderbirds. Starting with Supercar in 1961, Gerry Anderson's series included Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, and The Secret Service. His Supermationation shows proved very successful, sometimes in the Untied States as well as the United Kingdom in which they first aired. Fireball XL5 aired on NBC on Saturday morning in the 1963-1964 season, while Thuderbirds was widely syndicated throughout the United States. Thunderbirds would prove so successful that two movie were spun off from it: Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). Despite his success, Gerry Anderson was a bit embarrassed to be working with puppets and viewed it only as a stepping stone to live action television programmes and films. It was then in 1969 that he produced the live action science fiction film Doppelgänger.  In 1970 he produced his first live action show, the science fiction series U.F.O.

The next series on which Gerry Anderson worked was one which he did not create, the live action programme The Protectors. While the series would prove successful, Mr. Anderson's experience on the show was not pleasant, clashing often with series star Robert Vaughn and having to deal with filming across Europe. It was following The Protectors that Mr. Anderson produced what might be his most famous series after Thunderbirds, the live action science fantasy Space: 1999. While the show would only last two seasons, it would develop a cult following that has lasted to this day. Between the two series of Space: 1999, Gerry Anderson produced the television special Into Infinity.

The Eighties would see Gerry Anderson return to working with puppets with the show Terrahawks. He also served as a producer on the series Dick Spanner. In the Nineties he produced Space Precinct and Lavender Castle. In 2005 he served as executive producer on a revival of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, simply called Captain Scarlet.

While Gerry Anderson had originally disliked working with puppets, as he grew older he changed his mind. He said later in his life, "It would be very churlish for me now to denigrate the puppets that brought me so much success. I’ve slowly changed my attitude. Now I’m really very grateful to these little things that I strung up, um, that strung themselves up, for my benefit." Indeed, Gerry Anderson had no reason to be ashamed of his Supermarionation productions. They were imaginative and interesting in a way adults that as well as children would find them entertaining. If Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds are remembered to this day, it is because they captured the excitement of possible futures in ways some live action science fiction series never had. With varying degrees of success, the same can be said of Gerry Anderson's live action projects. Regardless of what one thinks of Doppelgänger, U.FO., and Space: 1999 (I personally like them--especially series one of Space: 1999), I think many would have to admit that they were different from any other science fiction movies or TV shows. Gerry Anderson was a true original, who created magic with his programmes, such magic that one didn't even mind when he or she saw the strings.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Charles Durning Passes On

Charles Durning, who appeared in films such as The Sting (1973) , Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Tootsie (1982) and such TV shows as Evening Shade, died on 24 December 2012 at the age of 89.

Charles Durning was born 28 February 1923 in Highland Falls, New York. Born in poverty to a large family, Mr. Durning eventually dropped out of school and left for Pennsylvania. There he worked various odd jobs. He then moved to Buffalo, New York, where he again worked at odd jobs, among them an usher in a burlesque theatre. When one of the theatre's comedians did not show up one night, Charles Durning, who had memorised the comic's routine,  convinced the theatre's manager to let him take his place. After his experience on stage that night, Mr. Durning decided he wanted to take up acting.

During World War II Charles Durning enlisted in the United States Army. He was among the first of the waves of American soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. He as the only one of his unit to survive D-Day. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the few to survive the Malmedy massacre, in which a German combat unit massacred American prisoners.  He ended the war having been awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Following the war Mr. Durning enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The school dismissed him in less than a year, maintaining he had no talent.

Charles Durning then worked at various jobs, including doorman, dishwasher, and cab driver, and even professional boxing and teaching ballroom dancing. In the meantime he did break into dancing. He made his television debut in a 1953 episode of You Are There. He made his film debut in 1962 in The Password Is Courage (1962). In the Sixties he appeared in such films as Stiletto (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), and I Walk the Line (1970). On television he appeared in such shows as East Side/West Side, The Nurses, N.Y.P.D., and High Chaparral. He made his debut on Broadway in Poor Bitos in 1964. He appeared in such productions as Drat the Cat, Pousse-Café, The Happy Time, and Indians.

It was in the Seventies that Charles Durning's career really took off. He appeared in such films as The Pursuit of Happiness (1971), Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), Doomsday Voyage (1972), Deadhead Miles (1973), Sisters (1973), The Sting (1973), The Front Page (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Breakheart Pass (1975), The Hindenburg (1975), The Choirboys (1977), The Fury (1978), The Greek Tycoon (1978), The Muppet Movie (1979), Starting Over (1979), Starting Over (1979), and The Final Countdown (1980). On television he was the star of the short lived series The Cop and The Kid and appeared in the mini-series Captains and the Kings. He appeared on such shows as Madigan, All in the Family, Canon, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, and Hawaii Five-O. On Broadway he appeared in such productions as That Championship Season and Boom Boom Room.

In the Eighties Charles Durning became one of the regulars on Evening Shade, which ran into the Nineties. He also appeared on such TV shows as The Hallmark Hall of Fame, American Playhouse, Eye to Eye, Tall Tales and Legends, and Amazing Stories. He appeared in such films as Sharky's Machine (1981), Tootsie (1982), Two of a Kind (1983), To Be or Not To Be (1983), Mass Appeal (1984), Stick (1985), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), Big Trouble (1986), Tough Guys (1986), Solarbabies (1986), Cop (1988), Brenda Starr (1989), and Dick Tracy (1990). He appeared on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In the Nineties he appeared in such films as The Music of Chance (1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), I.Q. (1994), The Last Supper (1995), The Grass Harp (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Recon (1996),  Never Look Back (2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and State and Main (2000) .  He appeared on such TV shows as Orleans, Homicide, Cybill, and The Practice. On Broadway he appeared in Inherit the Wind, The Gin Game, and Gore Vidal's The Beat Man. In the Naughts he was a regular on the show First Monday and Rescue Me, and had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond. He appeared on such shows as NCIS, Everwood, and Monk. He appeared in such films as L.A.P.D.: To Protect and to Serve (2001), Turn of Faith (2002), River's End (2005), Dirty Deeds (2005), The Golden Boys (2008), Three Chris's (2010), and The Waiter (2010). In the Teens he appeared The Great Fight (2011), The Life Zone (2011), Rogue Assassin (2012) , and Amazing Racer (2012).

Charles Durning was an incredibly prolific actor who worked in his craft until his death. He also worked in three different media: stage, screen, and television. It was his talent that allowed him to do so. He played an amazing array of different roles, everything from Santa Claus (multiple times) to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His film roles covered a broad area, everything from Sgt. Moretti in Dog Day Afternoon to lonely widower Les Nichols in Tootsie to a homophobic priest in The Last Supper. He was the consummate character actor, able to play anything from crotchety to gruff to kind to friendly. It is not many people who could play both a crooked cop (in The Sting) and Santa Claus (in several TV movies) and be convincing as both. Charles Durning was sometimes called the "King of Character Actors," and in  the modern era there can be no doubt he deserved the title.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Late, Great Jack Klugman

There are those stars who have been a part of our lives so long that one feels almost as if they know them. They form a part of one's earliest memories so much that they seem like a part of the family or an old friend. Jack Klugman was such a star for me. I really don't know where I first saw him. Given I watched it loyally as a child, it could have been The Odd Couple, but given just how much Mr. Klugman did in his career, it could have been any number of other TV shows or movies. Sadly, Jack Klugman died this Monday, 24 December 2012, at the age of 90.

Jack Klugman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 27 April 1922. He was either 14 or 15 when his older sister took him to see the play One Third of a Nation, a production of the Federal Theatre Project. The play kindled in him an interest in acting. During World War II he served in the United States Army. Following the war he auditioned for the drama department at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. The school did not think Mr. Klugman was suited to acting, but accepted him as with the war just coming to an end there were few male college students. He studied at Carnegie for two years before leaving for New York City to try his hand at acting. He made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of Actors Studio, also appearing in an episode of Suspense that same year. He made his debut on Broadway in 1952 in Golden Boy.

In the Fifties Mr. Klugman would appear on Broadway twice more, in A Very Special Baby and Gypsy. He appeared on television in such shows as The Big Story, Colonel Humphrey Flack, Rocky King Detective, Inner Sanctum, Big Town, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Suspicion, General Electric Theatre, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Playhouse 90. He made his movie debut in Grubstake (1952), and also appeared in the films Time Table (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), and Cry Terror! (1958). It was in 12 Angry Men that he played one of his most notable roles, that of Juror #5, a young man who had a particularly rough upbringing.

In the Sixties Jack Klugman played the lead in the TV series Harris Against the World. It was in 1970 that he was cast in what may his best known role, that of sports writer and slob Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple. Although the series did received particularly high ratings in its initial network run, The Odd Couple was well regarded by critics and had a very successful syndication run. In the Sixties he also appeared on such shows as Follow the Sun, The New Breed, The Untouchables, Naked City, The Twilight Zone, The Virginian, The Defenders, The Fugitive, I Dream of Jeannie, and Then Came Bronson. He appeared in such films as Days of Wine and Roses (1962), I Could Go on Singing (1963), The Yellow Canary (1963), Act One (1963), Je vous salue, mafia! (1965), The Detective (1968), The Split (1968),  and Goodbye, Columbus (1969). On Broadway he appeared in Tchin-Tchin, The Odd Couple, and The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson.

In the Seventies Mr. Klugman continued to appear on The Odd Couple on television. In 1977 he was cast as medical examiner Dr. R. Quincy on the TV series Quincy M.E. The series originated as part of The NBC Mystery Movie before going onto another six years as its own programme. He also appeared on the shows The Name of the Game, Love American Style, and Banyon. He appeared in the films Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow! (1971), and Two-Minute Warning (1976). In the Eighties Mr. Klugman starred on the show You Again and appeared on the mini-series Around the World in Eighty Days. He appeared on Broadway in I'm Not Rappaport.

From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr.Klugman appeared on such shows as Diagnosis Murder, Brother's Keeper, The Outer Limits, Third Watch, and Crossing Jordan. He also appeared in a reunion television movie, The Odd Couple: Together Again with Tony Randall. He appeared in the films The Twilight of the Golds (1996), Dear God (1996), When Do We Eat? (2005), and Camera Obscura (2010). He appeaed on Broadway in The Sunshine Boys and Three Men on a Horse.

If Jack Klugman was a prolific actor, it was probably because he was a great actor. Although most people might be inclined to think of him as Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple and Dr. Quincy from Quincy M.E. (both two very different roles), he played a wide of roles in his career and did all of them quite well. Over the years he played everything from a police detective (in The Detective) to the getaway driver for a heist (The Split) to a gambling addict (Two-Minute Warning). He was not an actor who was afraid to show emotion either. His style was forthright, so that he always showed whatever emotion his characters were feeling. That having been said, Mr. Klugman never overplayed his role, displaying just enough feeling to be realistic. He was a great actor, not a ham.

Jack Klugman was also seemingly indestructible. In 1974 he was diagnosed with throat cancer, yet he continued acting. Even after the cancer returned in 1989 and he had a vocal cord removed, Mr. Klguman still returned to acting. Indeed, he continued to appear in roles until 2010, when he played his last role in Camera Obscura. Jack Klugman seemed unstoppable. He also seemed to be a genuinely nice man. In interviews he always seemed warm and open, and possessed of a great sense of humour. 

Jack Klugman spent five decades acting and appeared in three different media (film, television, and the stage).  He had roles in major motion pictures and two successful television series. Few actors ever achieved the success that Jack Klugman did, but then few actors were as talented as Jack Klugman was.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ann Miller for Christmas

When people think of World War II pin ups they might be inclined to think of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth, but I suspect gorgeous, leggy Ann Miler may have been the true queen of the pin ups. Not only did she do literally dozens of pin up pictures, but she also seemed to have at least one--usually more--for every single holiday or occasion. Quite naturally, then, she did several Christmas pin ups over the years. As a "Merry Christmas," "Glad Yule," "Happy Holidays," or what have you, then, I offer you a few Yuletide pin ups of the beautiful Ann Miller.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

It Happened on Fifth Avenue

When people think of holiday films, they are likely to think of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), or A Christmas Story (1943). They might also think of such films as Christmas in Connecticut (1945),  The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Holiday Affair (1949). Unless they happen be a classic movie buff, it is unlikely that they will think of It Happened on Fifth Avenue. This is sad, as it happens to be something of a lost gem from the same era as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a comedy in which a hobo (Aloyisius T. McKeever, played by Victor Moore) makes his home in the mansion of the second richest man in the world (Michael J. O'Connor, played by Charles Ruggles), which is boarded up for the winter, every year starting in November until its wealthy owner returns in March. McKeever finds his usual occupancy of the mansion complicated when he takes in a young, newly homeless veteran (Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore),  after which he is joined by O'Connor's runaway daughter (Trudy, played by Gale Storm, who pretends to be a thief) and later McKeever's friends (a young Alan Hale Jr. among them).

Interestingly enough, the history of It Happened on Fifth Avenue is tied to another holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The film originated with the story "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani. Frank Capra acquired the rights to the story in 1945 with the intention of directing a movie based upon it. It was then planned that It Happened on Fifth Avenue would be the first film released by Liberty Films, newly formed by  Frank Capra and Samuel J. Briskin. This would never come to pass, as RKO head Charles Koerner suggested to Frank Capra that he read "The Greatest Gift," a story by  Philip Van Doren Stern optioned by RKO that the studio was unsuccessful in developing into a script. After reading the story, Frank Capra bought it from RKO with the intent of developing it as the first film to be released by Liberty Films. In the end, it would become the movie It's a Wonderful Life. As to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Frank Capra sold the film rights to Monogram Pictures.

While It Happened on Fifth Avenue would not be the first film released by Liberty Films, it would become the first film released by Allied Artists. Allied Artists began as a subsidiary of Monogram Pictures, a Poverty Row studio known for z-grade movies. Anxious to get into the major motion picture business, Monogram Pictures established Allied Artists so they could make A-pictures without having to release them under the "Monogram" name. Producer and director Roy Del Ruth was set to direct It Happened on Fifth Avenue, while  stage and movie veterans Victor Moore and Ann Harding were cast in key roles. About a month later Don DeFore and Gale Storm were cast.

Despite being set at Christmas and having a holiday theme, It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released in the United States on 19 April 1947. Regardless, the film received generally good reviews and did well at the box office. The film was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Story (it lost to another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street). A song from the film, "That's What Christmas Means to Me," would even be a minor hit for Eddie Fisher in 1952. It was released to television in 1954 as part of a package of Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists films. And over the years, it developed a loyal following. It would seem that it would have been destined to be counted among such holiday classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.

Unfortunately, things would not go smoothly for It Happened on Fifth Avenue. For whatever reason, It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared from television screens after 1990, and it remained unreleased on DVD for many years (the Warner Archive released the film in on DVD in November 2008). The film would not return to television until 2009 when Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in 2009 during the holiday season. Since then TCM has shown it at least once a year during the Yuletide.

I have to say that it is a real shame that It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, as it is a true holiday classic. In fact, of the holiday films released from what I consider the "Golden Age of Christmas Movies (about 1941 to 1949)," it is perhaps the one that touches upon the concerns of post-war America the most. It Happened on Fifth Avenue deals with soldiers returning from the war, the housing crisis that occurred upon their return, the problem of unemployment many soldiers experienced upon their return, and so on. That is not to say It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a boring sociological treatise. It also happens to be one of the funniest holiday movies ever made.

Much of this is due to Everett Freeman's adaptation of the story (with additional dialogue by Vicki Knight). While It Happened on Fifth Avenue takes a while to get started, once it gets started the laughs come fast and furious. Indeed, there is one conversation that is not only hilarious, but so innuendo laden I have to wonder how it got past the Breen Office. Of course, the script is helped by a fantastic cast, in which the lead roles are both played by two of the greatest character actors of all time--Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles. The two of them both give stand out performances that are among the best of any Christmas movie. While It Happened on Fifth Avenue may not have the big names that some other holiday films do (most notably It's a Wonderful Life  and The Bishop's Wife), it has one of the best casts of any of them. In the end, I have to say that It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of the best holiday comedies. It might not be quite as funny as Christmas in Connecticut or The Lemon Drop Kid, but it almost so.

Fortunately, while It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, it appears to be making up for lost time. Those who saw it before it left the air in 1990 are now able to rediscover it, while many who have never seen it are able to find what has long been a lost gem among holiday movies. Since TCM started broadcasting the film in 2009, it has gathered yet more fans. While It Happened on 5th Avenue may not currently be regarded as a holiday classic in the same way that It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street are, it may soon be.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol

It was fifty years ago on 18 December 1962 that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol first aired on NBC. It might not have seemed so at the time, but the debut of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was a historic event. It was the first animated holiday special, paving the way for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and many others. It remained a holiday favourite and aired regularly throughout the Sixties and Seventies, although it would cease being aired on the networks in the Eighties (it has aired in syndication and on cable channels). Last night NBC aired Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol for the first time in years (although sadly they cut much of it for commercials), perhaps because it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Although he might not be quite so well known now, in the Sixties Mr. Magoo was a cartoon superstar. Mr. Magoo originated in 1949 the UPA short "Ragtime Bear." When UPA sent "Ragtime Bear" to their distributor Columbia Pictures, Columbia wanted to know where the other six or seven were--the studio wanted a series. Although the bear of the title was supposed to be the star, it was the character of Mr. Magoo who stole the show. As a result, Columbia embarked on a series of Mr. Magoo shorts. As to Quincy Magoo himself, he was a wealthy, elderly man who refused to acknowledge the fact that he was extremely near sighted. In later cartoons his career was established as that of an actor. From the beginning Mr. Magoo was voiced by actor Jim Backus, who on radio played Hubert Updyke III on The Alan Young Show and would go onto play Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island.

Mr. Magoo proved extremely popular in the Fifties. In fact, two of the Magoo shorts ("When Magoo Flew" and "Magoo's Puddle Jumper") won Oscars for Short Subject (Cartoon). Unfortunately, the Fifties also saw the demand for animated shorts at cinemas go into a steep decline. Even the older animated studios would be affected, with Terrytoons selling out to CBS in 1955 and  MGM closing its animated studio in 1957.  Even the success of Mr. Magoo and other characters could not save UPA and the studio found itself in poor financial straits towards the end of the decade. The studio turned to television, producing The Gerald McBoing Boing Show for CBS in 1956 and The Mr. Magoo Show for syndication in 1960. The studio also attempted to break into feature films, their first being  1001 Arabian Nights starring Quincy Magoo.

Even though UPA was suffering more than its fair share of  financial woes,  Mr. Magoo continued to be wildly popular. According to a survey conducted in 1963, nine out of ten adults in the United States could recognise Mr. Magoo, and he beat out such competitors as Fred Flintstone and Popeye as their favourite cartoon character. It was little wonder, then, that Lee Orgel (then UPA's Director of Programme Development) struck upon the idea of Qunicy Magoo playing Scrooge in an animated production of A Christmas Carol. It was not an idea without precedent. After all, Mister Magoo had already played a character other than himself in 1001 Arabian Nights (the role of Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo).

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was sold to NBC and Timex was brought on board as the special's sponsor. Conceived as a musical,  Lee Orgel had to seek out composers for its songs. He had wanted Richard Rogers or Frank Loesser, but was unable to get them. In the end the job went to composer Jule Styne and  lyricist Bob Merrill, then busy with their musical Funny Girl. Preproduction on the special had already commenced by March 1962. Barbara Chain, who had previously written an episode of the 1957 revival of Crusader Rabbit and an episode of The U.S. Steel Hour, wrote the teleplay. Abe Levitow, who had previously directed the television short "Magoo Meets McBoing Boing" and episodes of UPA's The  Dick Tracy Show and was then also directing UPA's second feature film Gay Purr-ee, directed the special. Production on the special got under way in July 1962. Even with the planning involved in the special, they found that it ran short. As  a result a sequence was added in which the thieves who robbed Scrooge's deathbed sing the song "We're Despicable." The sequence was animated in all of two weeks. The special had a fairly good budget for television animation of the time, at $250,000.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was conceived not as a straight adaptation of Charles Dickens' novella, but rather as if Quincy Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge in a Broadway musical. The opening featured Mr. Magoo arriving at the theatre where the production of A Christmas Carol took place, while the closing featured Mr. Magoo and the other players taking their bows (the near sighted Mr. Magoo destroying the sets in the process). Sadly, after the Sixties the opening and closing were often cut to make way for commercials. Mr. Magoo was not the only UPA character to appear in the special. The role of Tiny Tim was played by Gerald McBoing-Boing, who actually spoke for the role (generally he only makes sound effect noises). To a degree Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was very faithful to the original novella.  Much of the dialogue was taken from Dickens, and it included the scene in which Marley's ghost shows Scrooge the many doomed spirits floating about London (often cut in most adaptations). At the same time, however, the special departed from the novella in other ways. Perhaps because of time constraints (in 1962 it could only run 53 minutes to make room for commercials), the character of Scrooge's nephew Fred was cut entirely (a shame given Magoo has a nephew, Waldo, who could have played the part...). Strangely enough, in the special the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge before the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would prove extremely successful when first aired. This not only guaranteed that it would continue to be repeated for many years (NBC alone aired it until 1967), but it would have an impact on American broadcast network television  in other ways as well. Perhaps the most immediate impact the special had was that UPA head Hank Saperstein was able to sell NBC a regularly scheduled, half hour, primetime, Mr. Magoo series. With the exception of one episode, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo placed Quincy Magoo in the role of an actor playing various roles from literature. There were adaptations of Gunga Din, Cyrano de Bergerac, Rip Van Winkle, Frankenstein, and so on. The exception to this format was the episode "Dick Tracy and the Mob," in which Dick Tracy convinces Mr. Magoo to impersonate a hit man for the mob. Despite the continued popularity of Mr. Magoo, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo did poorly in the ratings and lasted only one season. Although it is difficult to say why the series failed, it is possible that much of the reason was because it cast Mr. Magoo in various roles rather than concentrating on the character of Mr. Magoo himself.

The more lasting impact of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol is that it paved the way for the animated holiday specials that proliferated in the Sixties and Seventies. In the wake of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, several other holiday specials would follow in its wake: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1967, and Frosty the Snowman in 1969. By the Seventies animated specials were an established part of the holiday season on television. While they would decline in the Eighties, at no point since Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol has there been a time when there were no animated Christmas specials on the American broadcast network television.

While Mr. Magoo was an incredibly popular character in the Sixties, his popularity would eventually decline. UPA would close its animation studio in 1964. As a result, new material featuring Mr. Magoo would be rare in the following decades (aside from ads for General Electric). After The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, the first new Mr. Magoo project would be Uncle Sam Magoo. In this television special Mr. Magoo took viewers through the history of the United States. Following Uncle Sam Magoo, there would be nothing new featuring Mr. Magoo until the Saturday morning, animated series What's New, Mr. Magoo? in 1977 (UPA contracted DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to do the animation). Since Mr. Magoo was much less visible than he had once been, the character declined in popularity and as a result Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol declined in the ratings as well. The special then last aired on an American broadcast network in the Eighties. It would find a home not only in syndication to local stations, but on various cable channels as well. Over the years the USA Network, the Disney Channel, and the Cartoon Network have all shown it at one time or another. This year marked its return to NBC for the first time in 45 years.

While the character of Mr. Magoo would fade in popularity over the years and as a result Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would leave network television, the special left its impact on American broadcast network television long ago. Since Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol first aired in 1962, dozens of animated Christmas specials have aired and some have become annual events (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman). A case could easily be made that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol paved the way for every animated holiday special to come. Even after having spent the past twenty or so years on cable channels and local stations, then, it had a lasting impact on American broadcast network television.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

"Winter Wonderland" by Doris Day

One of my favourite songs of this time of year is "Winter Wonderland." Although often played during the holidays in truth it is simply a love song set at winter. For all practical purposes it could be performed any time during the winter, right up into March. I have several version s that I like, but Doris Day's rendition would number among my favourites.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Golden Age of Christmas Movies?

Chances are very good that if someone is asked what  his or her favourite Christmas movie is, he or she will respond with It's a Wonderful Life (1946). And if he or she does not respond with It's a Wonderful Life, then he or she might reply with Miracle on 34th Street (1947). If he or she does not respond with one of those two movies, it might well be with A Christmas Story (1983), Love Actually (2003), The Apartment (1960),  A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecitcut (1944), The Bishop's Wife (1947), or Holiday Affair (1949). Aside from A Christmas Story, Love Actually, The Apartment, and A Christmas Carol (1951) all of these films have one thing in common--they were all made in the Forties.

Certainly there were Christmas movies made before the Forties. If one does a keyword search on IMDB for "Christmas," the earliest films listed are all from 1897. The Thirties certainly produced their share of Christmas movies, including the first talkie version of A Christmas Carol (Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks in  1935), the first talkie version of Three Godfathers (1936), the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol (1938), Holiday (1938), and Remember the Night (1940). That having been said, not only does it seem as if the bulk of the most highly regarded Christmas classics were released in the Forties, but that more holiday films were released in that decade than most.

What is more, it would seem that the bulk of Christmas movies released in the Forties were in the latter part of the decade. Certainly some of the best known Yuletide movies were released in the early part of the decade. Meet John Doe was released in 1941, while Holiday Inn and The Man Who Came to Dinner were both released in 1942, but it seems as if the last six years of the decade were a boom time for holiday movies. Indeed, the years 1946 and 1947 may well have been the best years ever for holiday movies. Nineteen forty six would see only one major feature film related to the holiday released, but it is regarded by many as the greatest Christmas movie of all time: It's a Wonderful Life. Both Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart would regard the film as their favourite, and over the years it would become the favourite Christmas movie of millions. While 1946 would have only one major holiday themed release, 1947 would be a boom year for holiday movies. What is more, it would see the release of what may be the only Christmas film to rival It's a Wonderful Life for the title of "greatest holiday film of all time:" Miracle on 34th Street. The same year The Bishop's Wife would also be released, a film that has been regarded as a holiday classic for years. Also in 1947 both Christmas Eve and It Happened on Fifth Avenue were released.

No other year of the Forties would quite equal 1947, although the final years of the decade would continue to see Christmas movies released. 3 Godfathers was released in 1948, while Mr. Soft TouchCome to the Stable, and Holiday Affair were released in 1949. By 1950 the cycle towards Christmas movies appeared to have run its course. The Great Rupert was the only significant movie dealing with the holidays released that year. It would appear that 1951 may have been the end of the cycle, with both The Lemon Drop Kid and the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol released that year. The Fifties would see more than their fair share of Christmas movies, but hardly in the numbers of the late Forties and none with as prestigious as It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.

What may be as remarkable as the number of Christmas movies released in the Forties may well have been the sheer variety of those made. Today when we think of Christmas movies we might be inclined to think of comedies, or at least movies with a good mix of comedy and drama (the classics It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are examples of this), but there were also straight comedies (The Cheaters and Christmas in Connecticut from 1945, and  It Happened on Fifth Avenue from 1947), a film noir (Christmas Holiday from 1944), a Western (3 Godfathers from 1948), and dramas (Come to the Stable from 1949).  While It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are the best known Christmas movies of the Forties (perhaps of all time), not every Christmas movie was made in their mould.

Of course, the pertinent question may be, "Why did the Forties, particularly the late Forties, produce so many Christmas movies?"  It seems to me that it is no coincidence that there was an upswing in holiday films following the end of World War II. In fact, the post-war years would see a boom in Christmas in general.. Such classic songs as Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)," "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You) (1946)," "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane) (1947)," "Sleigh Ride (1948)", and "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas (1951)" were all released during the era. It was during this period that decorating one's home with Christmas lights became common place. The Sixties would see a number of classic television specials made, including Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

As to why there was a boom in Christmas in the years following World War II, it was perhaps rooted in the war itself. World War II was an extended conflict, with soldiers gone for years. When the war ended and the soldiers returned home, they quite naturally wanted Christmases like those they remembered when they were young. Having been denied a normal, family Christmas for many years, soldiers returning from the war cannot really be blamed if they went a bit overboard with the holiday, nor can various industries (including the motion picture industry) be blamed if they were happy to oblige them. Indeed, it seems significant that at least three of the holiday films made in the Forties (Christmas in Connecticut, It Happened on Fifth Avenue, and It's a Wonderful Life) featured soldiers returning from the war (indeed, it was central to the plots of Christmas in Connecticut and It Happened on Fifth Avenue), while at least one of them Holiday Affair) dealt with a war widow.

Regardless, it would appear that the Forties produced more Christmas movies than most decades and a greater percentage of  holiday classics than other decades. Christmas movies were made before the Forties and Christmas movies have been made since, but no decade has ever matched the Forties in the quantity and the quality of its offerings.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Movie Miracles

Many of the movies we now regard as holiday classics were also hits at the box office. Miracle on 34th Street (1946) and The Bishop's Wife both did respectable business. Both movies have also proven to have lasting power, remaining among the favourite Yuletide movies of all time. While Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife met with immediate success, however, that was not true of every movie now considered a Christmas classic. In fact, a few of them bombed at the box office and took literally years to become highly regarded among holiday movies.

Contrary to popular belief, It's a Wonderful Life does not number among the holiday films that bombed at the box office only to become dearly loved classics. In fact, It's a Wonderful Life actually made more money than the contemporaneous Yuletide movie Miracle on 34th Street. Miracle on 34th Street made $3,150,000 at the box office, while It's a Wonderful Life made $3,300,000. Why is Miracle on 34th Street regarded as a hit, then, when It's a Wonderful Life is regarded as a flop? The simple reason is that It's a Wonderful Life had a fairly large budget at the time. In some respects it was the equivalent of a modern day Hollywood blockbuster. Because of its huge budget and despite the fact that it made more money than many films in 1947, It's a Wonderful Life actually lost $525,000 at the box office! While It a Wonderful Life actually had more ticket sales than its contemporaries, then, it also failed to make a profit!

While It's a Wonderful Life was not quite the flop at the box office many believe it to be, the classic version of A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge) starring Alastair Sim did bomb in the United States, although it proved to be popular in its native Britain. While today it may be the most highly regarded adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic, when it was first released in the United States it received decidedly mixed reviews. At the time Variety said of A Christmas Carol (1951), "There's certainly no Yuletide cheer to be found in this latest interpretation of Charles Dickens' Christmas classic." They even attacked Alastair Sim's performance (now regarded as the best performance of Scrooge ever), claiming that the actor "...stalks through the footage like a tank-town Hamlet." On the other hand, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times gave the film a positive review. Mr. Crowther clearly thought it captured the spirit of the novella better than other film adaptations, stating, "To the credit of Mr. Hurst's production, not to its disfavour, let it be said that it does not conceal Dickens' intimations of human meanness with an artificial gloss."

As history has shown, Bosley Crowther was proven right in his estimation of the film, but its initial box office in the United States showed no sign that it would be considered a Christmas classic here, let alone the quintessential film version of A Christmas Carol. In fact, the film had been set to be shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, but the theatre's management cancelled the engagement with the idea that the film was too depressing. When the film did premiere in the United States, it was on Halloween 1951 at The Guild Theatre in New York City. Unfortunately, it would not remain in American theatres for long and its box office take was very small. Although now widely regarded as the best version of A Christmas Carol, it would take years for it to achieve that status. In fact, in the decades following the release of the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, most Americans might well have named MGM's 1938 adaptation of the Charles Dickens novella as their favourite.

What saved A Christmas Carol (1951) was the same thing that saved many of the films now regarded as holiday classics, but that had bombed at the box office:  the medium of television. While most recent films would take years to make their television debut on American television, as a movie that had bombed at the American box office, it was not long before A Christmas Carol (1951) made its way to the small screen. A Christmas Carol (1951) made its television debut on WOR-TV in New York City in 1954. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties A Christmas Carol (1951) would pop up during the holiday season on local television stations throughout the United States. In the Seventies A Christmas Carol (1951) local PBS stations began showing it. Slowly, as more and more Americans saw it, A Christmas Carol (1951) would become regarded as a holiday classic. Eventually it became regarded as the quintessential version of Charles Dickens' novella.

Like A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair (1949) proved a box office disappointment, but has become regarded as a Yuletide classic. On the surface Holiday Affair would have seemed poised to become a box office smash. The film was produced and directed by Don Hartman, who had written the screenplays for several of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's "Road to.." movies. It starred Janet Leigh, who was on loan from MGM to RKO, Wendell Corey, and Robert Mitchum. It was also a light romantic comedy with a holiday theme, a film that would seemingly appeal to audiences. Not only was Holiday Affair produced and directed by a Hollywood veteran who had written some of the best comedies of the Forties, not only were its stars appealing and popular, but it also received largely good reviews. Released at Thanksgiving in 1949, it would have seemed poised to become one of the box office hits of the year. Sadly, it did not. In fact, the movie utterly bombed at the box office. In the end, Holiday Affair lost $300,000 at the box office.

As in the case of A Christmas Carol (1951), it would be television that would see Holiday Affair elevated from box office bomb to holiday classic. In the Fifties and particularly the Sixties television stations in the Untied States started showing Holiday Affair every year during the holiday season. By the Eighties it was among the usual holiday faire aired during the Yuletide, alongside Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, and others. If there was a turning point for the film when it was destined to become a holiday classic, it was perhaps when Turner Classic Movies began airing the film yearly in the Nineties. Over time the movie that had been bombed at the box office came to be regarded as a holiday classic.

In his New York Times review of A Christmas Carol (1951), Bosley Crowther predicted it should prove to be popular during the Christmas season. There is no doubt many critics probably thought the same of Holiday Affair. The same was not necessarily true of a more recent film that is now regarded as a holiday classic. A Christmas Story (1983) was directed by someone no one would have ever expected to direct a holiday classic. Bob Clark was not particularly known for producing quality entertainment, having directed such movies as Black Christmas (1974) and the notorious Porkys (1982). While critics may have raked Bob Clark's previous movies over the coals, A Christmas Story received somewhat mixed reviews.

Regardless of its reviews, A Christmas Story was not a box office smash by any means. Released 20 November 1983, by 8 January 1984 it had only made $16,743,818 (about $37,214,556 today). While this might seem rather meagre, the film did make a profit, having only been made for only about 4,000,000 in Canadian dollars. Still, having made only $16,743,818 by 8 January 1984 and having largely vanished from theatres even before Christmas Day 1983, I rather suspect many at the time expected the film to simply disappear. Instead, it didn't. While A Christmas Carol (1951) and Holiday Affair would be rescued by local television stations, A Christmas Story would be saved by another source: premium cable channel HBO. A Christmas Story aired on HBO in 1985, allowing to it to develop an audience in a way that it never did at theatres. In fact, it proved popular enough on HBO that superstations WGN and WTBS started airing the film during the holiday season in the late Eighties. In 1988 the then young Fox broadcast network aired it on the night after Thanksgiving. By the end of the Eighties A Christmas Story had a huge following who regarded it as a holiday favourite. With the Turner Broadcasting System's acquisition of the pre-1986 MGM library, Turner also acquired A Christmas Story. Since then it has aired TNT, TBS, and Turner Classic Movies. In 1997 TNT would begin airing A Christmas Story for 24 hours straight, starting on Christmas Eve and ending on Christmas Day.  With repeated showing on television, A Christmas Story is one of the very few films made in the past fifty years to rise to the ranks of holiday classics.

By now it should be obvious that repeated airings on television are what rescued these films from obscurity and allowed them to become regarded as classics. In fact, the cynical among us might argue that it we are mistaking familiarity for quality and that they might not be classics at all. I would have to disagree with that assessment. The simple fact is that it seems as if certain films that bombed at the box office became regarded as classic after repeated airings on television while others did not. While the Preston Sturges film Remember the Night (1940) is well regarded by classic film buffs and has been shown on television many times, one would be hard pressed to find a member of the general public who knows it, let alone considers it a holiday classic. 3 Godfathers (1948) has been shown repeatedly on television, but I rather suspect few beyond classic film buffs and Western fans are familiar with it.

Of course, it can be pointed out that each of these films are good films, but it would seem that is not the only reason they were elevated to the level of holiday classics while others were not. Both of my examples above, Remember the Night and 3 Godfathers, are good films, yet they have not achieve the status that A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair, or A Christmas Story have.  I then think these films have certain qualities that make them stand out from the rest.

Some of these qualities are probably unique to those films. What set A Christmas Carol (1951) apart from the earlier 1938, MGM version, as well as many of the versions, is that it did not shy away from many of the grimmer aspects of Charles Dickens' novel. Like the novel it is as much a ghost story as a Christmas story, one in which the ghosts and spirits can be truly frightening. Once more like the novel  A Christmas Carol (1951) also gives us glimpses into the extreme poverty of Victorian London, an aspect to which many versions of the novel merely give lip service. Like A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair is to some degree rooted in the reality of its times. Janet Leigh's character is a war widow who must watch her spending to make ends meet. The film also gives us a glimpse of an America we barely remember, where huge department stores dotted the landscape and where Christmas was a particularly singular event. Like Holiday Affair, A Christmas Story also gives us a look at America as it was. It is a world where department stores were still common and where those department stores created extravagant Christmas displays. It is also a world where people still bought real evergreens at lots rather than simply buying artificial trees at the local WalMart or Costco.

Beyond these qualities unique to these films, there is perhaps a more nebulous quality that they all share. Quite simply, it could be that they capture the Christmas spirit better than many films. Each of these films make fairly good use of the trappings of the holiday. A Christmas Carol (1951) featured "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in its title sequence and carollers singing an anachronistic "Silent Night (the English translation used today came about in 1853)," as well as family gatherings and a plenty of snow. Holiday Affair featured such things as trimming a Christmas tree and a family Christmas dinner. A Christmas Story pretty much portrays the life of a boy in the weeks before Christmas and his quest to insure he gets an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for the holiday. Because of this it not only features very well known Christmas songs (everything from "Jingle Bells" to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"), but such customs familiar to Americans of the mid-20th Century as looking at the Christmas display at the department store,  trimming the Christmas tree, watching the Christmas parade, and going to see Santa at the department store. Other films also contain some of these elements, but it seems possible that they simply do not do them as well A Christmas Carol (1951), Holiday Affair, or A Christmas Story.

Regardless, each film has come to be regarded as a holiday classic, those films guaranteed to be aired every Yuletide. They have outlasted more recent films and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. I suppose they are proof that a film need not be a huge box office hit to be remembered and eventually regarded as a classic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Forgottten Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol has not only seen several film versions, but several television adaptations as well. A few of these television versions of the classic tale, such as the 1984 adaptation starring George C. Scott, have become annual events on cable television channels. Among these adaptations was an animated version produced by Air Programs International (API for short), an animation studio from Australia. It was produced in 1969 and first aired in the United States on CBS on 13 December 1970.  It would air annually on American television for well over a decade.

API established itself as an animation studio with the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. Produced in 1966, it became the first Australian animated series to be successfully syndicated worldwide. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on the project for which they may be best remembered, a series of animated television specials based on literary classics called Family Classic Tales.  From 1969 to 1984 API regularly produced specials in the series, based on such classic books and stories as Treasure Island, The Prince and the Pauper, and From the Earth to the Moon. The very first special in the series was their adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

API's version of A Christmas Carol was produced and first aired on Australian television in 1969. It was directed by legendary animator Zoran Janjic. Zoran Janjic began his career at Zagreb Film, the well known Croatian animation studio. In 1960 he emigrated to Australia and he went to work for API. At API Mr. Janjic directed Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table. He also served as a background artist on episodes of the 1966 animated version of The Lone Ranger, an American series produced by Format Films which aired on CBS Saturday mornings from 1966 to 1968. After he directed A Christmas Carol, he would go onto direct other entries in Family Classic Tales. In the Seventies he became the head of Hanna-Barbera's Australian division, and he served as a producer on such Hanna-Barbera series as The New Scooby Doo Movies and Wait Until Your Father Gets Home. In the Eighties he started his own company, Zap Productions, which produced animation for commercials in Australia.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol also featured impressive voice talent. Ron Haddrick was the voice of Scrooge. The actor had appeared in television adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest, and he also appeared in such Australian series The Stranger and The Hunter. He would go onto appear in the shows The Lost Islands and Home and Away, as well as the movie Quigley Down Under (1980).  Bruce Montague played the voice of the ghost of Bob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well as various incidental voices. He appeared on the TV show Crane and guest starred on The Saint and The Baron. He went onto appear on the shows The Link Men, Fair Ground!, and Butterflies, as well as such movies as Sextet (1976) and George and Mildred (1980).  John Llewellyn provided the voice of Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past. He had appeared in the films The Vanquished and Long John Silver, as well as the TV shows Consider Your Verdict and Hunter. He would go onto appear on the shows Division 4, Homicide, and Juliet Bravo.

Given the talent involved in API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, it should be no surprise that it holds up well today, particularly for television animation. While not on the level of a feature film, it is still well ahead of the limited animation of the average American, Saturday morning cartoon of the Sixties. Zoran Janjic did a very good job of directing the television special, with his use of light and shadow being particularly impressive at times. Perhaps the best part of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol may be its backgrounds. These are not the sparse backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons or even animated television specials of the era, but lavish backgrounds the evoke Victorian London quite well. Running only around fifty minutes, API's version of A Christmas Carol does omit portions of the novel, but for the most part it is very faithful to the novel, down to using dialogue straight from Charles Dickens.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol, as well as the rest of Family Classic Tales would make their way to the United States. Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio saw a two minute demo of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol. This led him to think that a series of animated special that adapted literary classics might be suitable for his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. The result was Famous Classic Tales, which aired on CBS on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, as well as the early evening on weekdays, usually around holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July. Famous Classic Tales ran on CBS throughout the Seventies and into the early Eighties. The very first entry in the Australian Family Classic Tales and the American Famous Classic Tales (very nearly Family Classic Tales under a different name), A Christmas Carol, proved to have a bit of longevity on American television.  It ran for 15 years on CBS. After the run on CBS, Famous Classic Tales were syndicated to stations across the United States, so that API's A Christmas Carol would have a long run after leaving the broadcast network.

API's version of A Christmas Carol is rarely seen today. Although a somewhat poor copy can be found on YouTube, it is not currently available on DVD. In some respects this is sad. API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol was well done and in some respects more faithful to the original novel than the feature film versions. Regardless, I rather suspect that most Americans who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties have fond memories of API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol and, in fact, it may have served as their introduction to the Charles Dickens classic. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"I Want You For Christmas" by Cheap Trick

Legendary power pop band Cheap Trick has reworked their classic "I Want You to Want Me" as a holiday tune, "I Want You For Christmas." The song's video debuted on VH1 Classic as part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the charity album A Very Special Christmas. It also appears on the album A Very Special Christmas 25th Anniversary. The video can be viewed at VH1, at VEVO's website and on VEVO's YouTube channel.

Having been a fan of Cheap Trick nearly as long as I have been alive, I can assuage any doubts anyone might have that the band may have watered down the classic "I Want You to Want Me." The song's power chords are in tact and its new lyrics fit the song perfectly. In fact, "I Want You for Christmas" may be my favourite version of the song. Anyhow, without further ado, here is ""I Want You For Christmas."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kenneth Kendall R.I.P.

Kenneth Kendall was not the first newsreader for BBC Television, but he was the first newsreader to actually appear on the screen. He died yesterday at the age of 88. Kenneth Kendall was born on 7 August 1924 in British India. When he was ten years old his family moved to Cornwall where he would spend the rest of his childhood. He studied at Felsted School in Essex and attended Oxford University. During World War II he served in the Coldstream Guards and was wounded during the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. He left the service in 1946 with the rank of captain. Following the war he was a teacher at a prep school in Sussex. It was a friend, who thought he had a good voice, who suggested he apply for a job at the BBC.

Kenneth Kendall joined BBC Radio in 1948. He made an uncredited appearance in the film The Reckless Moment (1949). In 1954 he moved into television. In the early days of BBC Television newsreaders did not appear on screen as it as thought that their facial expressions could give the impression of bias on the part of the newsreaders. It was in 1955, not long before the launch of ITN (the first competition in television that the BBC would have), that the corporation decided to have a newsreader on the screen. It was then on 4 September 1955 that Kenneth Kendall became the first newsreader at the BBC to appear on the television screen. He appeared as a BBC announcer in the film Evidence in Concrete (1960).

 In 1961 Kenneth Kendall left reading the news and joined the BBC programming department. He disliked the job and did not remain with it long. Throughout the Sixties he presented the quiz show Pit Your Wits and he appeared on such programmes as A for Andromeda, Suspense, Here and Now, Doctor Who, Adam Adamant Lives, and Mogul. He narrated Seawards the Great Ships (1961) and appeared in the films The Brain (1962), They Came from Beyond Space (1967), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

 In 1969 he returned to the BBC as a newsreader. He appeared on Dead of Night and The Morecambe & Wise Show. He left the BBC in 1981. In 1982 he started a seven year stint as the host of Treasure Hunt. He went onto appear on the shows Executive Stress and KYTV.  He returned to Cornwall where he opened an art gallery, then moved to the Isle of Wight where he opened a restaurant named Kendalls. Discovering his disliked the restaurant business, he closed it and opened an art gallery on the same spot.

As an American I never saw Kenneth Kendall read the news live, much less host Treasure Hunt. I only know him from archival footage and his appearances on television shows and in movies. That having been said, I saw enough to be impressed with Mr. Kendall as a newsreader. He had a great voice and perfect diction, and he appeared imperturbable regardless of the news he was reading. The fact that he was always impeccably dressed lent even more weight to his words as he read the news. Speaking as an American, Kenneth Kendall seemed like the British equivalent of Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley, television journalists from an age when television journalism was a serious business. That having been said, Kenneth Kendall was one of a kind, a dignified newsreader who always gave his best to his job.